How to Get out of a Rut

Psychological Strategies to Get Unstuck

Woman doing dishes looking out window.

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We all go through periods where we feel like we might be stuck in a rut. In fact, it's not uncommon to feel like you're just going through the motions, treading water, or jogging in place. You're doing the same old things, but it doesn't seem like you are actually getting anywhere. Things that used to excite you start to feel less interesting. Instead of moving forward toward your goals, you're remaining stagnant. These feelings can be frustrating. But, there are things that you can do to not only figure out why you're stuck, but also learn how to get motivated and excited again.

Recognizing the Signs You're Stuck in a Rut

Being "stuck" is something you may not even notice at first. These feelings often build slowly over time. Day after day, you might follow your same routines. Eventually, it feels less like you are working toward something and more like you're just killing time. Here are some of the signs that you might be stuck in a rut.

  • Every day seems the same. You might even have trouble remembering what day of the week it is. Is it Monday, or is it Friday? It doesn’t matter because your days feel indistinguishable from one another.
  • You feel like you're just trying to get through another day. Your goal is to keep putting one foot ahead of the other until the day is done. You don't feel excited or inspired.
  • You feel unmotivated. You might want to take on new projects or engage in creative tasks, but it feels like your motivation has run dry. You just can't seem to get started.
  • You feel unfulfilled. Life feels dull and boring. You want to try new things, but you don't know where to begin.
  • You want to change, but fear the temporary discomfort that comes with it. You know that changing things up will make you happier in the long run, but you keep sticking with the status quo because it means you won't have to risk any pain or failure.

Sometimes these feelings may be more than just being stuck in a rut. Such feelings may be signs of something more serious, such as persistent depressive disorder (PDD). This mild, but chronic, mood disorder is characterized by symptoms that are less severe than depression but can often be longer-lasting.

People often experience these symptoms for years without recognizing that what they're feeling is actually a form of depression. Low mood, decreased energy, loss of interest, and loss of pleasure are all common symptoms of this condition. If you suspect that you may be experiencing PDD, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

Finding the Source of Your Rut

While you might recognize that you are stuck in a rut, you might not know what the next step should be. One thing to remember is that not all ruts are the same. Figure out what's causing your discontentment before you make any drastic changes in your life.

For instance, you might feel like you are in a rut with your romantic partner. Or perhaps your job is the source of your feelings. Even your health, your family situation, your friendships, your hobbies, or your home can cause unhappiness.

Don't criticize or berate yourself once you understand the root cause of your feelings. It's easy to minimize the problem and try to make your feelings seem trivial. You might think: "I have a great life," or "I don't have a right to feel this way." But, these thoughts are counterproductive and keep you trapped in the rut. While things may be "just fine" as they are, if you're not satisfied, it's time to make changes and regain your spark.

Getting Out of a Rut

Once you've acknowledged what you're feeling, start looking for ways to get unstuck. There are a number of ways to break the negative cycle and move forward. Here are a few ideas on how to get out of a rut.

Take Care of Yourself

When you feel stuck in a rut, combat it by taking care of yourself. Self-compassion is critical to mental wellness. Start with a quick assessment of how well you've been taking care of you. Have you been eating well? Are you sleeping enough? Have you been spending enough time with people who care about and support you?

If something is lacking in the self-care department, now is the time to address it. Healthy food, adequate sleep, daily exercise, and social support are all essential to your physical and emotional health. Look for ways to treat yourself a little better. Taking care of yourself ensures you have the energy to stay focused and excited about your life.

Change Your Routines

It's hard to move forward or branch out if you're following the same routines day after day. People are creatures of habit, and sometimes feeling stuck stems from boredom. Look for ways to add different experiences to your day. Here are some things you might try.

  • Strike up a conversation. Talking to new people is a great way to expand your social connections. Plus, you will learn interesting things about the people around you.
  • Have some fun. Spend some time engaged in an activity you truly love. Whether it's hanging out with friends or pursuing a hobby, set aside time during the week and focus your energy on having a good time.
  • Try something new. Whether it's taking a new route to work, watching a new show, or signing up for a class, exploring the world around you can add zest to your life.
  • Be spontaneous. If you're bored with your life, live in the moment. Do things that are not pre-planned. Say yes to new experiences; and don't be afraid to do the unexpected.

Try Heading Outdoors

Researchers have discovered that being in nature has a positive impact on the brain. For example, one study found that taking a walk outside reduced self-referential rumination, a behavior that can increase the risk of depression. Another study found that nature walks were associated with decreased depression, lowered stress, and increased mental well-being.

Not only can being outside increase your mental wellness, studies have shown that it enhances creativity as well. The next time you're feeling bogged down, try going for a walk. Let go of the thoughts circling around in your brain. Pay attention to the world around you. Allow yourself to relax, think of new things, and enjoy the beauty you see. If nothing else, it's a great way to get some exercise. You will return to your everyday life with a renewed sense of wonder.

Find Your Purpose

It's easy to fall into a rut when it feels like you're not really working toward anything. Having things to look forward to and a sense of purpose are key ingredients for motivation. For instance, life goals related to your career or your relationships can provide a sense of purpose. Even small things, like having plans for Friday night, can lift your spirits.

In fact, researchers have discovered that having something to look forward to helps people cope with troubles in the here and now. Psychologists have long recognized the importance of delayed gratification. By holding out for larger rewards in the future, people build better self-control and stronger willpower.

In one study, chronic gamblers were asked to think about upcoming events like a future vacation. By doing so, they were able to curb their impulse to gamble. Thinking about the future allowed them to focus on their long-term goals rather than giving in to the desire for immediate gratification. Here are some ways to give yourself something to look forward to.

  • Make plans. There is a great deal of power in anticipation. Sometimes you might look forward to existing events, such as the release of a movie or your favorite holiday. But you also can create these moments intentionally. Plan a vacation, even if it's just taking a day trip to a local spot. Call or text friends and make plans for Friday night. Give yourself things to look forward to and get excited about.
  • Don't overlook the little things. Even small daily and weekly rewards such as being able to go to your favorite place for lunch or tuning into your favorite TV show once a week are great ways to build a sense of anticipation for the future.
  • Volunteer to serve others. Having a sense of purpose also comes from helping others. Look for ways to contribute in your community. Or, focus on helping your friends or loved ones with a project. Participate in your church. Volunteer with a local organization. Or, even engage in political activism. Such activities give you a sense of greater purpose and meaning.

Boost Your Motivation

Sometimes getting out of a rut happens spontaneously. For example, you might feel stuck in a rut one day and then something suddenly clicks into place and the feelings vanish. In other cases, you might need to take a more active approach. One way to do that is to focus on your motivation. Here are some ways to get motivated, even when you don't feel particularly interested or excited about what you are doing.

  • Take small steps. Pick something that you think you might like to pursue, such as a new hobby or workout program. Start small with something you know you can accomplish, yet is just outside of your current skill level. Don't wait for motivation or inspiration to strike. Just get going. Force yourself to get through the first step. Once you have mastered it, pick another small step and master it. Eventually, going through the motions will be a thing of the past and you will feel involved, excited, and interested in learning more.
  • Reward yourself. Positive reinforcement is helpful when you're struggling to get motivated. Promise yourself a reward for starting the task. Then, continue to reward yourself after completing each step. Eventually, pull back on the rewards, but promise yourself a larger reward once you have reached your goals. Rewards can get you started and help generate greater interest in what you are working on.

Squash Perfectionism

If you struggle with perfectionism, this can keep you stuck in the same place. No matter how hard you try, it seems like whatever you're working on is never good enough. But, you need to squash your tendencies toward perfectionism right away and recognize that done is better than perfect. In other words, rather than trying to make a project perfect, be satisfied with the fact that you completed it.

If left unchecked, perfectionism can keep you spinning your wheels for a very long time. Instead, focus on completing projects and moving forward rather than striving for perfection. Let yourself make mistakes. Embrace the fact that you have given your best effort and move on. In time, you will be much more productive and creative when you're no longer tethered to perfectionism.

A Word From Verywell

Feeling stuck in a rut can be frustrating. But with a little effort, you can add a sense of novelty, adventure, and excitement back into your life. If you're feeling overwhelmed by that thought, you might be experiencing something more serious. Loss of interest in things you enjoyed, difficulty feeling happy emotions, and a sense of hopelessness are symptoms of depression. If what you're feeling is more than just being stuck in a rut, talk to your doctor right away.

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Article Sources

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